Bully breed dogs raise issues with landlords, insurance companies

Monday, March 26, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:10 p.m. CDT, Monday, March 26, 2012
Eric Ward, Ava Ward, 5, and Megan Miller watch as Weston Miller, 6, plays on the family's iPad at their home on Friday. The family pit bull, Bowser, lies quietly at his favorite spot on the couch. Pit bulls have a reputation of being more aggressive, which can lead to insurance liability concerns.

COLUMBIA — Kristal Toney of Columbia loves her dog, Frisky, but the family pet arrived with baggage.

Frisky is a pit bull.


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So, despite her claims that Frisky is quite friendly, Toney has had trouble finding a place to live. She comes up against clauses in housing contracts that restrict certain so-called bully breeds.

"People don't offer to meet the dog before saying she's not allowed," she said. "They just stereotype it."

Pit bulls are among the bully breeds that have a reputation of being particularly aggressive and likely to bite.

Bully breeds usually include American pit bull terriers, bull terriers, Staffordshire terriers, select mastiff breeds and mixes of these animals. Sometimes, Rottweilers, German shepherds, Akitas and Doberman pinschers are also included.

While these dogs might have sweet temperaments, the assumption of aggression can make it difficult to earn public acceptance. Owning one of the breeds can prove challenging for owners looking to rent an apartment or secure homeowners insurance.

Dog bites injure thousands

Typically, justification for any restrictions centers on the increased liability for dog bites and other dog-related injuries.

Dogs bite 4.7 million people a year, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. The center noted there is no reliable way to determine which breeds are more likely to bite or kill.

It was reported in 2009 that 337,526 people in the U.S. were injured by dog bites, up slightly from 333,235 the previous year.

The center did analyze 24 years of human dog-bite-related fatalities and reported in 2000 that at least 25 breeds were involved in 238 fatalities.  

More than half of the human dog-bite-related fatalities were attributed to pit bulls, Rottweilers and their mixes. In the final two years of the study — 1997 and 1998 — the same group accounted for 67 percent of the deaths.

"It is extremely unlikely that they (pit bull-type dogs and Rottweilers) accounted for anywhere near 60 percent of dogs in the United States during that same period and, thus, there appears to be a breed-specific problem with fatalities," the report concluded.

Pit bulls are a type of dog, not a breed, said Hank Greenwood, president of the American Dog Breeders Association, an organization based in Salt Lake City that advocates for acceptance and responsible ownership of pit bull terriers.

Pit bulls cover up to 20 breeds and any number of mixes, including American Staffordshire terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers and American pit bull terriers, Greenwood said.

A number of cities pass breed-specific bans

Reports of pit bull attacks — including attacks in Missouri — have prompted a number of communities to enact breed-specific legislation. Eight municipalities in Missouri have banned or restricted specific breeds or types of dogs, according to the Animal Legal and Historical Center at Michigan State University.

Columbia does not have a breed-specific ordinance, though it does impose regulations on vicious animals, described as ones prone to bite, snarl, growl, snap or generate fear in reasonable people.

According to Gerald Worley, environmental health manager of Columbia-Boone County Health Department, the regulations are targeted toward behavior, not breed.

An individual dog can be classified as vicious or as a nuisance, but breeds are not prohibited or restricted. Owners can affect the temperament and disposition of their animals, Worley said.

Liability concerns prompt restrictions

The reputation of these dogs as being vicious or more likely to bite a human increases the perception of risk for liability, however, and some landlords and property owners have responded with breed restrictions.

Callahan & Galloway Property Management Professionals, a company that manages residential and commercial properties around Columbia, used to allow bully breeds and mixes, but changed its policy about seven years ago because of pressure from individual property owners.

Many owners of rental properties managed by the company have homeowners policies that don't allow bully breeds, according to Joe Callahan, a co-owner.

Callahan said he believes some pit bull issues result from poor training by their owners, but he can describe a run-in with a dog himself.

"It's too bad that this has happened to the breeds," he said. "But as a victim on a rental property, I concur."

A tenant had reportedly moved out, but in checking the property, Callahan discovered a pit bull still in the building. He said he ran from the dog and made it to a fence, but it bit him severely on the calf.

"I think about what could have happened had it been someone else," he said. "My job is to protect the owner, nearby residents and maintenance staff."

Insurance coverage may depend on breed

Insurance companies are also cautious about pit bulls and other dogs such as Doberman pinschers, German shepherds and Akitas.

While some will cover certain types of dogs under liability if they are properly trained and restrained, others restrict coverage or charge more for certain breeds, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The institute's stated mission is to improve public understanding of insurance.

Eric Ward, who lived in Columbia until a few months ago, said that because of his pit bull, Bowser, he has been unable to obtain liability insurance. 

Toney said her mother, Shirley, who lives in Arkansas, has had problems finding home insurance because of her pit bull, Oreo. Several companies dropped her home insurance after finding out she had a pit bull, Toney said.

Dog bites account for more than one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claims, costing $413 million in 2010, the institute reported.

"Some companies will not insure pit bulls because they consider them aggressive," State Farm spokesman Jim Camoriano said. State Farm does not deny insurance to Missouri dog owners based on breed.

"We don't look at a breed and say that all are vicious," Camoriano said.

Missouri ranks No. 19 in dog-bite claims

State Farm had nearly 3,500 dog-bite claims nationally in 2010 and paid more than $90 million. In a May 2011 press release, State Farm ranked Missouri at No. 19 in the country for dog-bite claims in 2010, paying $608,000 for 61 claims.

Once a dog has bitten someone, it poses an increased risk, according to the Insurance Information Institute's website.

In that instance, the insurance company might suggest the homeowner find the dog a new home, or decide to charge a higher premium, to not renew the homeowner's insurance policy or to exclude the dog from coverage.

According to the institute, most liability policies provide $100,000 to $300,000 of coverage for dog bites

"Many insurers are taking steps to limit their exposure to such losses," the Insurance Information Institute's website states. "Some companies require dog owners to sign liability waivers for dog bites, while others charge more for owners of biting breeds such as pit bulls and Rottweilers and others are not offering insurance to dog owners at all."

If an owner acquires a pet deemed ineligible, an insurance company can cancel the current policy, said Connie McClellan, producer at Winter-Dent & Co., an insurance company with offices in Columbia and Jefferson City. She said this policy is fairly standard in the insurance industry.

Ineligible breeds at Winter-Dent & Co. include pit bulls, Rottweilers, some German shepherds, chows, mastiff mixes and Doberman pinschers, McClellan said. The company might give the owner the opportunity to get rid of the dog or face cancellation.

"It is really important for people with these breeds to declare them to their insurance company, because the company can decline coverage," McClellan said.

Not all breeds allowed in Stephens College dorms

Stephens College allows dogs in certain residence halls but rejects certain breeds — pit bulls, Rottweilers, chows and Akitas — because of insurance reasons.

"We're not saying a pit bull is a bad dog; it's how it has been trained," said Deb Duran, vice president of student services. "Any breed can be vicious depending on the training. But some have higher risk."

Toney has three children and considers them safe around Frisky.

"She has never bitten them or their friends," Toney said. "She's very playful."

The Central Missouri Humane Society has a program called Bull Runs that tries to secure adoptions for bully breeds. Part of its job is to reverse the stigma on these dogs, or at least put it in perspective.

"If you look into the history of the American pit bull terrier, they were actually known as the 'nanny dog' around the turn of the century," said Katie Steckel, Bull Runs coordinator. "They're amazing dogs."

Dog fighting influences perception

Steckel said she believes dog fighting downgraded perceptions of the breed in recent times. When dog fighting was considered more acceptable, she said, inherent aggression was not the ideal characteristic in fighters. Instead, the most desirable trait was an animal's willingness to fight other dogs, but not harm humans. 

Since dog fighting has gone underground, it has been transformed into breeding and making the dog aggressive in the way they're treated, Steckel said.

Greenwood maintained that pit bull activity has been sensationalized, which has led to discrimination. In earlier decades, other dog breeds were considered to be more aggressive and scary, he said.

If a pit bull mix attacks someone, the breed makes headlines, Greenwood said. But if it's a Labrador mix, it's called a dog attack — if it's reported at all.

"It is a dog that you have to be careful with," Steckel said. "Because if it was doing any behavior that any other normal dog would do, a lot of times it's sort of exaggerated in peoples' views, just because it's a pit bull that is doing it and not a lab."

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Thomas Nagel March 26, 2012 | 2:05 a.m.

The issues concerning these animals - particularly landlords' policies limiting pit owners ability to rent - is usually based on racism and not the stereotyped qualities of the animal. We don't hear much about landlords denying a tenant re: a dog that sheds. The gist is: you got to take of and love your dog - then they don't bite people. Landlords and insurers need to be fair.

(Report Comment)
Cecil Caulkins March 26, 2012 | 5:36 a.m.

Pit bulls are sweet animals. They are also strong animals and can be trained to be aggressive by pathetic, insecure people who want to live vicariously through their animals. People like this shouldn't own gerbils, much less large dogs. The problem with pit bulls is a problem with the owner, not the dog.

(Report Comment)
frank christian March 26, 2012 | 11:48 a.m.

"The problem with pit bulls is a problem with the owner, not the dog."

Even the ones claiming "racism" (ridiculous) do not deny that there is no problem. With the innumerable true accounts of incidents involving serious physical damage to children, other dogs and adults, some reportedly for first time by previously lovable canines, why would so many dismiss these incidents by blaming pit bull owners? To give residence to so many "sweet animal"s while only hoping that it will never do what the hundreds of others have been accurately reported to have done is insane, imo.

"In earlier decades, other dog breeds were considered to be more aggressive and scary, he said."

I have lived in many of the "decades", Mr. Greenwood refers to, loved and owned dogs through most of them and would dare him to produce evidence, and identity of the other dogs he professes to "be more aggressive and scary".

(Report Comment)
Louis Schneebaum March 26, 2012 | 3:54 p.m.

In the past couple of years, I've had three different neighbors who were pit-bull owners. All three of them let their dogs run off leash -- I was once pinned against my car in my own front yard. When I asked the owner if he would keep his pit-bull out of my yard he got angry, he told me that HIS dog was 'cool'. That is the same response I got from other pit owners -- THEIR dogs are special, and they won't hurt you. Newsflash -- no dog ever bites, until it bites.

The debate over whether or not a pit-bull is more likely to bite than other breeds is irrelevant. When a pit bites you it is far more catastrophic than the bite of a beagle, golden retriever, or collie. Moot point. I don't want to be bitten by ANY dog. But I REALLY don't want to be bitten by a pit-bull.

(Report Comment)
Louis Schneebaum March 26, 2012 | 3:56 p.m.

We all obviously know that the problem is with the dog-owner, rather than the dog itself. The issue is that ANYONE can become a dog owner. I regularly see persons barely capable of taking care of themselves, sporting their brand new pit-bull puppy. Not gonna end well. Sorry.

(Report Comment)
Robin Nuttall March 26, 2012 | 4:48 p.m.

I have owned Dobermans since the early 1980s. At that time, Dobermans were the "vicious" breed-du-jour. Hype, myth, misinformation and just outright lies influenced by sensationalistic media reporting got the Doberman labeled as vicious. After Dobermans it was Rottweilers. Next Pit Bulls and bully breeds, and next on the agenda will be Cane Corso and Presa Canario.

There are huge problems with bite statistics and breed specific legislation. Many people mislabel breeds because they don't have any clue what the breed really is. Bite stats do not take into consideration whether it was a repeat biter or a single dog each time, whether the bite was a family or "stranger" bite, whether it was provoked or unprovoked (I have caught children shooting my dogs with BB guns, jabbing at them through a fence with sticks, running up and screaming in their faces... and that's just my own personal experience with my very well trained dogs that did not respond).

The CDC realized several years ago that breed specific legislation simply does not work. It condemns some dogs totally unfairly, and exempts some dogs that are real problems. There are many Pit Bulls and bully type dogs that are service dogs, therapy dogs, and amazing family pets. There are Golden Retrievers that would take your face off in a heart beat. And just ask any vet about Cocker Spaniels.

Columbia's behavior based law is absolutely the way to go. And shame on insurance companies and landlords who condemn entire breeds based on nothing (who knows when the last reported death or severe injury by a Doberman was, it was never any kind of high number, they are condemned on reputation alone...)

I am proud to use State Farm insurance, because they do not discriminate by breed.

Finally, owners of ANY dog of ANY breed or size have a responsibility to the public to train that dog to be civil and a good citizen. And dogs running at large should be reported to animal control; it is against the law in Columbia and Boone County to let a dog run loose. If you see one, report it.

(Report Comment)
Louis Schneebaum March 26, 2012 | 5:09 p.m.

If you report a loose dog, Animal Control specifically makes you give them your name, address, telephone number, etc. Then the owners treat you aggressively and disrespectfully. I, for one, was called a "little b*tch" because I finally had to call AC on a specific pit-bull. I had done nothing wrong other than ask that the owner prevent the dog from harassing me in my own front yard. In fact, the pit-bull tried to enter my door on one occasion. To clarify, any large potentially threatening dog would alarm me in the same way, it just seems that the pit-bull is the dog of choice of the dregs of society.

(Report Comment)
frank christian March 26, 2012 | 7:37 p.m.

"I have owned Dobermans since the early 1980s. At that time, Dobermans were the "vicious" breed-du-jour.

I disagree with last sentence of this statement. During the '80s Dobermans became popular because of their appearance, intelligence and ability to accept training as watch and guard dogs. A popular movie was made about them. They cannot be compared to Pit Bull in danger to humans and other animals.

Comments repeating the obvious,"owners of ANY dog of ANY breed or size have a responsibility to the public to train that dog to be civil and a good citizen.", then recommending that one wait to see if the tenant, neighbor, with a Pit Bull is the right kind, before condemning the "breed", while ignoring the hundreds of incidents involving that animal (unless they are lies, the horrific incidents are not "over reported") are imo, unconscionable.

(Report Comment)
Robin Nuttall March 27, 2012 | 1:01 a.m.

Frank, as a Doberman owner since 1981, a past member of the Doberman Pinscher Club of America, a present member of the United Doberman club, and having trained and titled Dobermans in obedience, agility, rally, schutzhund, and more, I think it's a pretty fair bet to say I know more about the breed and its history than you do.

During the 1980s and early 1990s the Doberman was every bit as reviled as the Pit Bull is today. And it's still tarred with the viciousness brush; Dobermans are always automatically included in any breed bans, just because.

Hundreds of incidents with pit bulls? Care to give a cite there? And yes, supposed pit bull attacks are dramatically over reported, since most people will look at any larger short coated dog and call it a pit bull when it almost certainly is not.

Breed specific legislation simply does not work, and many cities who had previously had breed bans are rescinding them. All breed specific legislation does is condemn very nice dogs to unjust death.

As for giving out your name if you report a loose dog, animal control will only do that if it's either a second complaint by the same person or the owner actually goes in person to animal control and gets the name. Otherwise they are guessing. And just remember. The OWNER of that dog is the one in violation of law, not the dog.

We cannot condemn an entire wide ranges of breeds based on prejudice, misinformation, and hype. We also cannot exempt entire breeds from bad behavior because they are supposedly "always friendly."

If Landlords and insurance companies want to set precedent, they should perhaps require that all owners of dogs over a certain age have a Canine Good Citizenship certification, which tests, among other things, ability to be approached and handled by strangers, ability to pass by another dog without aggressive reaction, etc. That would be fair and make sense. Blanket prejudiced stereotyping? Stupid, and worse than stupid; ineffective.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking March 27, 2012 | 7:42 a.m.

Robin Nuttall wrote:

"If Landlords and insurance companies want to set precedent, they should perhaps require that all owners of dogs over a certain age have a Canine Good Citizenship certification,"

Ideally, that would be best, in addition to enforcing animal treatment laws, but in a city where a lot of animals don't have licenses, and it's not uncommon to see dogs (often pits) tied out in a yard, neglected, and unsocialized, I don't see much realistically changing.

Owners are responsible for 99+% of bad dog behavior. There's nothing inherent about pit bulls (which are actually several different, related breeds of dog), Dobermans, Rottweilers, German Shepherds, or any other dog commonly trained as a guard or police dog, that make them any more dangerous than, say, a well socialized golden retriever (who might lick you to death).


(Report Comment)
frank christian March 27, 2012 | 8:07 a.m.

R. Nuttall - "it's a pretty fair bet to say I know more about the breed and its history than you do." We are writing about society's acceptance of the Doberman. As a member of society I can have as valid opinion as you. Why, if so reviled would you continue to raise and (I presume sell) such an animal?

"Hundreds of incidents with pit bulls? Care to give a cite there?" Google "dog bite incidents involving doberman pinschers, there are none. Do the same with pit bulls, the list is as long as your arm! Over reporting? Again, unless they are lies, not so! "most people will look at any larger short coated dog and call it a pit bull when it almost certainly is not." It becomes clear that you more likley believe that animals are superior and the people are dumb. Incidentally insurance companies make decisions on premiums and exclusions on valid statistics, not public opinion.

(Report Comment)
Robin Nuttall March 27, 2012 | 8:28 a.m.

@Frank, I chose Dobermans years ago for many reasons, including their medium large size, short coat, intelligence, trainability, and loyalty. Technically you could call me a breeder I guess; two litters in 28 years, the last litter turned 10 yesterday...

As for citing... google? Really? That's your idea of a cite. Alrightey then.

Insurance companies are likely to go on hype just as much as anyone else. If it was true that pit bulls were a huge problem with dog bites, why would State Farm allow coverage? State Farm does not discriminate based on breed.

And in some cases I do think dogs are smarter than people...

(Report Comment)
frank christian March 27, 2012 | 10:39 a.m.

Robin - "And in some cases I do think dogs are smarter than people..."

And there we have the reason for our differences about dogs!

(Report Comment)

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